The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Forget universal preschool. We need a 13th grade.

This baby needs preschool and 13th grade.
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In education circles, universal preschool is hotBut it’s only half the answer. If we really want to raise a generation of employable kids, we need universal 13th and 14th grades too.

As taxpayers, we’ve decided to subsidize the education of every American child between the ages of 5 and 18. But current education funding structures reflect a bygone industrial age, when a high school diploma met or in some cases exceeded the needs of the local and national economies. Now, neither preschool nor college is a luxury, and families shouldn’t have to pay for the schooling that keeps society running.

Creating grades 13 and 14 would reduce student debt significantly, while also providing kids without college degrees a viable path to work. And it would offer students who need remedial courses a chance to catch up. Right now, those kids often pay out-of-pocket for classes that don’t count toward their degree.

Such a program wouldn’t be cheap. But the government already pays for 13th and 14th grade, in the form of hodgepodge student loans.

Instead, all students should receive a voucher they can use for middle colleges, community colleges, or four-year degree programs. State and federal governments should also begin to negotiate the amount of grants and loans given to colleges and universities to prevent tuition inflation.

This is an investment that’ll pay off. President Obama pitched his universal preschool plan based on a pay now or pay more later argument. It’s the same argument here.

The number of households with student debt more than doubled from 1989 to 2010. The social capital gained as well as the long-term financial benefits of graduating from college eventually outweigh the immediate financial losses of taking out loans. However, costs are being passed onto consumers in ways that doesn’t maximize society’s return on investment.

If you think college is expensive, try living without a degree. Rises in college tuition have outpaced median family income since the 1980’s. The Pew Research Center found that the value of a college degree is increasing with time while high school diplomas are depreciating. Today, 22 percent with only a high school diploma from the U.S. are living in poverty, compared to 7 percent of Baby Boomers who had only a high school diploma in 1979 when they were in their late 20s and early 30s.

Our financial structures need to catch up to families’ economic realities. Back in 1998, President Bill Clinton pledged “to make the thirteenth and fourteenth years of education – at least two years of college – just as universal in America by the twenty-first century as a high school education is today.”

We’re on the precipice of change at for universal preschool. Let’s make sure we remember children are valued when they grow up. The bookends of an education should be as accessible as grade school.